The DUP has denied that Peter Robinson radically changed his position on the sale of NAMA assets just months before the Cerberus deal – despite evidence that NAMA interpreted it as a significant policy change.
Mr Robinson and the then DUP finance minister, Sammy Wilson, had consistently argued against a NAMA ‘fire sale’ of its Northern Ireland properties ever since the Republic’s ‘bad bank’ was formed in late 2009.
They feared that as the Republic was at that point desperate for cash and there would be no electoral consequences for southern politicians if they flogged NAMA’s Northern Ireland properties, it could take action which would have flooded a stagnant property market north of the border.
Although Stormont had no right to direct NAMA, Mr Wilson persuaded the then Dublin finance minister, the late Brian Lenihan, to set up a Northern Ireland advisory committee to the ‘bad bank’.
Mr Wilson was able to nominate two people to represent the Province’s interests on that committee – Frank Cushnahan and Brian Rowntree.
As late as May 2013, Mr Wilson told an MLA: “While I was initially concerned about the impact it would have locally, NAMA has kept to its commitments on avoiding a ‘fire sale’. Indeed I believe NAMA is playing a positive role in Northern Ireland in making finance available to debtors seeking to develop assets and for potential buyers of commercial property.”
Those comments came just weeks after a DUP statement from Gregory Campbell and Ian Paisley Jr, which complained about NAMA’s decision to put a Portrush hotel into administration, said: “This must not signal a change of approach from NAMA which, to date, has operated with no major release of properties on to the market.”
Yet just four months later, Mr Robinson made a speech which at the time immediately raised eyebrows because its tone was so different to what had gone before.
The First Minister said NAMA had become part of “a triple whammy of obstacles to a real take off in the economy”.
He praised Mr Wilson’s work with NAMA, but added: “However, holding on to assets to realise their value in their long term does little to boost our economy right now.
“If these assets could be liberated then there is no doubt that they could play a major role in creating jobs in the construction sector and getting our economy moving.”
NAMA’s chairman expressed surprise at the comments and warned that the only beneficiaries of “market flooding” would be short-term investors.
It is now clear from documents obtained by John Campbell, BBC Northern Ireland’s economics and business editor, that the comments were discussed by NAMA’s Northern Ireland Advisory Committee.
The minute of an October 2013 meeting of the committee said: “The committee noted the First Minister’s recent publicised comments regarding NAMA’s ‘holding on’ to property and inhibiting growth in NI, which was at odds with the NI political system’s initial fears regarding NAMA fire selling assets. The committee noted that the NI business community had not responded in support of the comments...”
When asked why Mr Robinson had changed his position so significantly, a DUP spokesman said: “There was no change in position.
“Both Sammy and Peter wanted to avoid a fire sale where the market was flooded with properties without any consideration for the wider impact on the Northern Ireland economy.
“Peter outlined this concern in his September 2013 speech and both men along with other Executive colleagues raised this issue with the Irish government and NAMA. We are pleased that the NAMA sale avoided this scenario.”
After NAMA’s Northern Ireland loan book was sold to Cerberus in April, Mr Robinson issued a statement – one of the few, if not the only, statements on the deal by a senior Northern Ireland politician.
The statement was striking because of its extremely positive impression of a deal which many people were unsure about, given its scale and the nature of the US ‘vulture fund’ involved.
Mr Robinson said that after speaking to NAMA and Cerberus “I believe that this deal is excellent news for the Northern Ireland economy”.
He added that his “conversation with Cerberus provided great encouragement that they will work ... to the benefit of all concerned.”